Letter to the Editor: serious danger to aircraft if drones are flown irresponsibly

Nick Foxall, Sai Kung founder of dronesurvey.HK

I’m writing regarding the drone video posted on SAI KUNG BUZZ (“Austen Wylde Stark: 24-year-old film maker teaches school children and plots ambitious career”). While I’m all for encouraging young filmmakers to be proactive, try new things, and develop their portfolio, there are some aerial shots in the video that should be of serious concern.

The number of drones has proliferated in the last few years, especially among recreational and hobbyist users. Hong Kong is believed to have one of the highest number of drone users per capita in the world, and Hong Kong’s spectacular landscapes – both urban and natural – make for some amazing videos and photos.

But few people realise the inherent dangers when flying drones in our crowded urban landscape, and especially in and around the harbour front. There’s already been one reported near miss in the last few months between a government helicopter and a drone near the Convention Centre, and other drones have been reported to CAD for operating close to the Macau Ferry heliport. I don’t think a lot of casual users realise the potential dangers, less the rules surrounding drone use in Hong Kong.

Unfortunately, the current regulations around drone use in Hong Kong do not present a level playing field. As a commercial operator myself, I have to comply with the Air Navigation Ordinance, and follow strict aviation regulations laid down by the Civil Aviation Department when operating a drone for commercial purposes. Recreational users, however, fall under the rules for “model aircraft flying” and are not subject to the same regulations. But they are supposed to follow guidelines laid down by the CAD (http://www.cad.gov.hk/english/Unmanned_Aircraft_Systems.html), which include:

  • Keeping the drone within visual line of sign at all times. In practice for small drones this means not more than 500 metres from the operator, and I would say probably a lot less in most cases.
  • Not exceeding 300 ft above ground level.
  • Flying in daylight hours only, not at night.
  • Not “over or within 50 m of any person, vessel, vehicle or structure not under the control of the operator”.

….and a number of other guidelines. Up to now, the government has done a pretty poor job of informing the public about these guidelines, and for the time being, they are just “guidelines” in the sense that they are not backed by law if you are only flying drones in a hobby capacity. That could be set to change in the near future, as clearly the regulations were written at a time when model aircraft flying was a small niche hobby, confined to specific locations, long before consumer drones came on the scene.

The video posted contains some pretty reckless shots, including shots in the harbour, at night, at well over 300 ft, which present a real hazard to helicopters that operate in that area. While manned aircraft are not permitted below 500 ft over habited areas, there are at least three helicopter landing pads in the harbour area, meaning the chances of manned aircraft and unmanned aircraft coming into contact are higher than normal.

Drones are fun, I know, and there’s a very bright future for drones across a number of commercial applications, including film-making. But I really hope people will consider the safety aspect and potential hazards when using these devices in Hong Kong.

Nick Foxall
Founder and CEO
Dronesurvey Asia


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